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Years ago, my friend, Brian, was mediating a dispute. It was
complicated, involving groups who had been affected by distress in
their city. One side blamed the other, and the other side blamed the
blaming side. There was conflict about what the conflict was about.
There was a meeting to address the escalating threats, and history was
present like dynamite. There was fire in the air.
Because of anger and humiliation, the groups were itching for a
particular kind of showdown in the mediation. There was only one
imagination about what the culmination to all of this would be:
further conflict. Brian walked into the room, saw what was in the air,
and made a decision.
“Will we start with a song?” he posed. Then he started to sing a
I know people who were in the room. Brian’s singing was a shock.
But because he kept singing, people started to hum along. A new — and
surprising — experience happened. Everybody in the room now thought
Brian was deranged.
Brian, in the role of the mediator, was doing something risky, but
important. When there is only one posture imagined between conflicted
groups, sometimes we need a surprise to show us what else might be
possible. When you have focused all of your hostility on that
other group, sometimes a mediator with a lovely singing voice
can be a new focus for your hostility. Brian wasn’t making light of
the conflict, he was using a tactic of distraction to open up the
possibility of unexpected words being said in a room where only
expected rehearsals of worn arguments had been imagined. With
something new, other new things can arise.
Krista’s wondrous and far-reaching conversation
with Rabbi Ariel Burger this week engages with the questions of
who and how groups can be groups of moral courage. In a conversation
that spans lamentation, otherness, blessing and contribution of a
theological understanding to contemporary political divides, we
encounter Rabbi Burger — a scholar, artist and musician — as a wise
voice in practice when it comes to the question of how to speak well
with each other in tense times.
Ariel Burger was a student of the late Elie Wiesel, whose wisdom is
almost like a third voice in this conversation. We hear Wiesel’s
reminders about how to disagree: “Never let anyone be humiliated in
your presence,” pointing to a practice wherein past wrongs could be
tools of education rather than humiliation. With great wisdom, Ariel
Berger also points to the limits of this practice: Elie Wiesel would
never engage with a Holocaust denier, for instance. The practice of
how to speak with each other requires a kind of embodiment — a “holy
madness” Rabbi Burger calls it — rather than an abstract set of
The world is filled with rooms of serious disagreement, we know
this. And the wisdom from this conversation is timely, and timeless.
We inhabit a world where otherness is used both as a weapon and a
barrier: “I want to share with you that I think there are two
challenges with otherness - one is we fall into the trap of
not listening,” Rabbi Burger says.“We also make a different mistake
which is to be overly familiar with the other, and to think that we
already know the other.” The hope is that we can transmit a different
kind of intelligence and knowing of each other: filled with truth,
yes, but not just as a function of the brain, but as a function of the
whole person. When we encounter each other, we become oriented towards
each other, activated witnesses, able in large or modest ways, to
embody “a moral education without moralising.”
From a conversation on On Being that considers otherness
through mysticism and a long view of time, the
latest This Movie Changed Me about Sydney Pollack’s
The Way We Were with writer Sophie Krueger locates the
question of self-discovery, conflict, love, compatibility, otherness
and endings in the small world between two people. Right at the
beginning we learn that the relationship between Katie Morosky (Barbra
Streisand) and Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) will not last, and
the movie is a consideration of the kinds of things that cause a
couple to separate.
In many ways, this movie — and the conversation between host Lily
Percy and Sophie — is an extended conversation about time. What does
it mean to live lovingly in the present when we don’t know the future?
And does the not-knowing leave us without courage, or do we use the
knowledge we have now to delve deep into the heart of what gives us
life and enlivenment?
This rich conversation considers love, in all its complexities, and
ultimately lands on how, in a healthy relationship, the job is less to
transform the other than to attend to yourself. We hear
echoes of otherness here, too: how we are other to ourselves, and in
our closest relationships; and that this can be an invitation into a
life of courage and imagination.
In all our othernesses, we are glad to be in conversation and
learning with you.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound
P.S. – In celebration of the release of
Pádraig’s new book, Borders
and Belonging: The Book of Ruth: A Story for Our Times (co-written
with Glenn Jordan), our colleague Ben Katt and Pádraig lead an
intimate gathering on Zoom to discuss how the ancient biblical story
of Ruth speaks to our present moment. You
can watch a recording of their conversation on our YouTube
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista
From being a spectator to bearing
witness. Maladjustment with moral force. Lamentation. The creative
space between words.
This Movie Changed
Way We Were”
How romantic relationships can
transform us and bring us closer to ourselves, even when they